Time to come together on our energy future

Harry Truman once said the only thing new in the world is the history we haven’t read. Anyone who has worked on America’s energy policy over the last several decades sure knows the feeling.

Every president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama has pledged to cut our reliance on oil and promised to unleash America’s innovative genius to create a mix of energy sources and technologies that can drive our economic growth and improve our security. 

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And yet we have made only halting progress toward these goals. Oil, for example, still accounts for 93.5 percent of all U.S. transportation fuel. 

For years, there had been a broad bipartisan consensus on key issues: the need for domestic oil-and-gas production, the economic payoff of energy efficiency measures, the value of infrastructure investments to boost U.S. competitiveness and the long-term role of renewable energy. These priorities were reflected in the 2005 and 2007 energy bills, each passed with wide bipartisan margins. But even those issues have become contentious.

Take energy efficiency. Any comprehensive energy and economic policy must include efforts to use energy more wisely.  A recent National Academy of Sciences study found that energy-efficient technologies for buildings, transportation and industry could save up to 30 percent of the energy used in the U.S. by 2030. The report concluded that the result of this savings “... would be lower costs and a more competitive economy ... .” It is simply common sense to use less energy to produce equal or greater services and products.

The same holds for producing more American oil and natural gas. New technologies are allowing the production of more oil and natural gas here at home than at any time in decades, yet we have been unable to get agreement on new areas to develop and new rules for safety. This at exactly the time our people badly need these oil-and-gas jobs and the economic boost new production brings to entire regional economies.

And even though government spending as a whole must be cut to deal with our debt, investments in energy infrastructure and research are critical for us to compete with other nations. These must be done wisely, but they must be done, even under austere budgets.

We have suggested, in fact, the notion of using a small portion of the revenues from oil-and-gas production to fund alternative energy investments like electrification of transport, the use of natural gas and propane for heavy-duty trucks and buses, and research on energy breakthroughs. We are certain there are many other equally thoughtful approaches.

Ultimately, we need to move beyond the polarizing debates that have prevented progress on a sound energy policy. 

On one side of the political spectrum, we need to move beyond reflexive opposition to any new measures that increase domestic supplies of energy. We should acknowledge that domestic production is critical to our energy security, and that responsible development of sources like new natural-gas deposits presents a huge economic opportunity.

On the other side, we need to avoid divisive battles over things like light bulbs, and acknowledge that energy-efficiency standards for appliances, buildings and transportation have a good track record of saving energy, lowering costs and making our economy more competitive.

Given burgeoning global demand, long-term oil and many other energy-related commodity prices are likely going nowhere but up. We simply must develop both our traditional energy supplies as well as deploy and develop new and existing alternatives now and for our future.

Finally, in this time of fiscal crisis, we can no longer afford to adopt policies and programs that don’t move us unambiguously toward national goals on energy security, which are, in fact, national security objectives as well. This is why we have called for the development of detailed energy measures, metrics, goals and accountability mechanisms to judge whether we are making progress. There is an old aphorism in business and government that “you manage what you measure.” As a nation, we need to be more hardheaded and demand that programs produce measurable progress toward national energy goals. 

While it might strike some as clichéd, the truth is that the American innovative spirit and a broad policy consensus have been key drivers of our economic competitiveness throughout our history, from Ben Franklin to Thomas Edison to Bill Gates. We need to come together as a nation, re-establish a broad-based energy consensus and find ways to reignite the innovative engine of the American economy — a touchstone of our national identity. 

Lott and Dorgan are co-chairmen of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Energy Project.